On wavers of flags and shrouds.
It feels as if this ‘blessed plot, this realm’, this encrusted blood soaked earth, is being shaken from beneath my feet.
Those who are doing the undermining, appear to me as wide eyed frothing mouthed Crusaders, who have gathered the flag of the cross of St George around their shoulders. They bay for blood, they cry havoc and would let loose the dogs of war. It was ever thus. Racists and Bigots feel free to spew their stupidity and spittle threats into the faces of other British people, who just happen to have different colour skin, in public, while dehumanisation takes hold as talk of swarms and vermin abound. The right wing press daily provide platforms to flag wavers and shroud bearers while their quantity of tears for the fallen, though heartfelt, would turn a crocodile shame faced at the audacity.
Wherever one looks, there is the ‘help for heroes’ request; old soldiers requesting funds to help their comrades, while their comrades sleep rough, self harm and drink themselves into lonely oblivion. As they do so, the children of the ruling class, who send them to die on their behalf, quaff Champagne in swanky London bars congratulating themselves on a job well done, on another day’s hard labour throwing the lambs to slaughter. They paid off the debt of the Banker, but the debt owed to the soldier is forgotten. The blood stained IOU is deftly dropped when no one was looking, to drift into the drain and on into the gutter. The only other blood they see is that oozing from a fillet steak in the ‘Manoir aux Quatr’Saisons’ while ex-servicemen feast at foodbanks: “They say the tongues of dying men enforce attention like deep harmony…for they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain”. Yet those pain wracked words fall as invisible rain onto the steely deafened ears of the self obsessed who are even now beginning to fulminate at the possibility of a ‘Brexit betrayal’ and threaten violence on the streets. A violence that they of course will incite others to commit on their behalf, for they lack the courage to do so themselves.
I have had enough.
As did John of Gaunt, I fear for England.
“This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
(Shakespeare. Richard II. Act 2 Scene 1.)
I wish to argue that the chess board is rigged, that the Kings know nothing of, and feel less empathy for, the pawns they command. Pride in men who join the armed services is one thing, but uncritical pride in why the military is used is quite another.
In 1975, at age 16, I joined the Royal Navy and I stayed in until about June 1981. Shortly after in 1982, the Royal Navy was sent to the South Atlantic to engage in a ‘hot war’ where lives were lost on both sides. It was a war over the right to govern the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, over a contested ’sovereignty’. Merely writing ‘Malvinas’ will be enough to arouse the goose stepper that lives within many a petty bourgeois nationalist. The fact that this was a war shows the abject failure of politics, and the absolute success of nationalism, to do anything other. Its proximal antecedent was a right wing militaristic ‘Junta’ failing at home needing a distraction, and a right wing Imperial minded leader failing at home, and thankful that a distraction had just been provided. The distal antecedents are of course to be found in both British Imperial History and its bloodied claims to lands far far away, and for those who long have contested such excursions wherever they occurred.
We know of course of successful rebellions against British Rule in the Americas in 1776 and just a little more peacefully in Africa in the 1960’s but less so in India in the run up to 1948. Argentina’s claim to sovereignty may well have been spurious, as the United Nations did not uphold it unequivocally. Nonetheless, it was an example of how post colonial ripples carry upon the ocean of peaceful co-existence. Britain’s claim to sovereignty to those islands dates back from 1690. However, in 1965 the United Nations passed a resolution requiring both countries to find a peaceful solution to the sovereignty question, indicating it was by no means a settled one. In 1980 two years previously, Britain held secret talks with Argentina over the sovereignty issue, recognising perhaps that there may be some merit in their claim. Men and Boys had to die to settle it.
I joined up in 1975 because it was clearly a good option for a working class grammar school boy, whose father had been in the Fleet Air Arm and who knew other family friends who were based at nearby RNAS Culdrose. My father had brought back exotic black and white photographs of life on an aircraft carrier, HMS Centaur, on a two year tour of South East Asia and Australia. There were pictures of palm trees, of coconuts and of Seahawk jets on the flight deck. They were thrilling and gave a glimpse of a world beyond the drab skies of Camborne and Redruth, two towns beginning their decline. Joining up promised a decent pay packet and promises of foreign travel. No one mentioned any war, cold or hot. The ‘communist threat’ was never discussed in my house. Joining up also promised the opportunity to ‘get a trade’ which back then was the height of working class aspiration. The whole tantalising idea was sold as a fantastic opportunity to see the world and learn new skills at the same time. Killing for ‘Queen and Country’ was never a motivation discussed or adopted. Militarism never overtly reared its ugly little head.
I was of course, being born in 1958, a product of post Imperial Glory. We could talk of coons and wogs openly, and we often heard that the independent states were worse off after the British left, that the Empire brought wealth and civilisation. Issues such as slavery were little discussed, nor were British concentration camps, genocide or resource extraction. We were brought up with the classic film ‘Zulu’ (which I still love) but not Isandlwana. We watched the great film ‘Battle of Britain’ myriad times. Other films included ‘The Cruel Sea’, the ‘Dambusters’ and ’633 Squadron’. ‘Waterloo’ was a particular favourite, and it led me to ‘war gaming’ involving the collection and painting of figurines as well as studying napoleonic battle tactics. I collected Airfix models of Lancaster bombers, Spitfires and Royal Navy ships such as HMS Hood. We watched the Royal Tournament and the antics of the Field Gun Crews on TV at Earl’s Court. The armed forces were heroically, and uncritically, woven into our cultural fabric. Historic battles were taught in books, TV, and culturally from the point of view of British Imperialism as an unequivocal ‘good thing’.
This was my context in 1975.
I soon became an ‘Air Weapons Mechanic’, we were known as ‘bombheads’, whose job it was to maintain the weapon systems on Sea King helicopters,. The role also entailed maintaining all forms of weaponry the Fleet Air Arm possessed, from 9mm pistols, to 7.62mm self loading rifles (SLR) to torpedoes, depth charges and nuclear weapons. I particularly remember the first time I handled an SLR at a firing range. Discharging a 20 bullet magazine towards a target gave a fleeting impression of invincibility. The power of the thing was seductive.
My short time in the Royal Navy involved a lot of drinking, singing in pubs, and feeble attempts at shagging. I was given the opportunity to travel all over the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Cyprus, as well as over to Philadelphia, Florida and New York. In 1977, I was to be drafted to HMS Blake in San Diego, California, but I fell off a motorcycle and broke my leg instead.
Yet even when I was on the flight deck of HMS Bulwark loading torpedoes to helicopters, and even though we saw Russian military aircraft tracking us, the idea of a hot war never really intruded into our daily discourse. We just got on with the job, never really thinking or discussing geopolitics. The current state of affairs was taken as a given, that the Royal Navy had every right to be doing what it was doing. I never heard below decks, the wish to fight, to ‘get real’, to actually use the weapons we handled daily. The focus was on getting the mundane daily tasks done, and to go ashore, get pissed and shag as many young ladies we could get. The latter was more hope than actuality. No one actually mentioned the ‘Old Lie’. We toasted Nelson and the Queen with rum, more in pissed up ceremony rather than with blood lust. Korea and Suez were forgotten. The only blood spilled was when one cut a finger on a particularly stiff ring pull on a can of beer.
I suspect, the whole tone changed after 1982 when real blood, skin and bone were in the game, when history became reality when ‘Hearts of Oak’ oozed the sap of blood.
I was recently given the opportunity to hear an old speech by Michael Portillo at a Tory party conference. The context was thus a crowd of flag waving right wingers requiring a bit of cheer. And his intent? Who knows…beyond the simple need to rally the troops. You might like to see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHmGliVqxXg. It is currently doing the rounds in the context of Brexit and the fervent ‘Man of Gammon’s’ fear that it might not happen, hence his perceived need for a militaristic rallying cry today. Unthinkingly, or not, Portillo’s speech conflates militaristic nationalism with patriotism and any critique of the role of the military in British history will be faced with apoplexy. In 2018, as the Brexit end game may be in sight, or not, some feel the need to invoke past imperial glories to stiffen the sinews for the final push. There has always been a rich seam of nationalism in Britain, George Orwell clearly discussed it in ‘England, Your England’ and Paul Gilroy in ‘There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack’ outlined its racist undertones.
Portillo’s speech begins with:
“Throughout our long history, Britain has been slow to quarrel…but when we fight, we fight to win”.
The video I saw was interspersed with scenes from Waterloo, a rather ironic American War of Independence, the Anglo-Zulu War, WW1, and the Battle of Britain. He goes on to say:
“…the freedom for which they spilled their blood, the democracy for which they suffered, the sovereignty for which they died, is not the property of this generation to surrender.”
British history, he suggests, should be taught to children, but not what he calls the ‘wishy washy sociological flimflam’ that he claims is taught, as he states:
“I don’t mean the politically correct debunking anti patriotic nonsense of modern textbooks”.
He then sets up a simplistic historical binary of good v evil, heroes v villains, freedom v tyranny. Nelson, Wellington and Churchill get a special mention. He talks of ‘defence’, as if that was the only role the British military ever undertook. What does he think we were doing when painting the globe pink: defending Fulham from the ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’, Dagenham from the ‘darkies’ or Rotherham from the ‘Ragheads’? How many Zulus were planning to invade Wimbledon? How many Boers planned an incursion into Cheltenham? He was right that in 1939 it was about ‘defence’ at that point in history, but do not forget the torrid antecedents to Hitler’s rise that owe as much to British and German Imperialism and economic failure as it did to German national mythologising (something we are good at too).
He then paints the picture of a little England that “will not be put upon”. After delivering the speech he sits down looking very pleased with himself.
It is a master class in ‘rallying the troops’, a proper bit of political propaganda – all that was missing was “Cry God, for Harry, England and St George”.
It is of course historical bullshit which his dismissal of text books gives away. It is one sided, false, bourgeois history and a grave insult to the thousands of British, African, Indian, American and Europeans, and the 20 million Russians, who died for the ‘Old Lie’. ‘Bourgeois’ history is history as told by the ruling class – old monarchists, aristocrats, Colonel Blimps, Shire Squire Tories, Etonian and some Oxbridge historians and old style capitalists.
Many other countries will also have their own versions of this speech. No doubt young Germans in 1914 heard it, the French at Waterloo heard it, the American colonists would have been rallied about similar talk of sovereignty and democracy and against (British) tyranny.
There is much to be proud of in British history, but this speech is not it. It is a cartoon of a speech that dishonours the men and boys who died in a foreign field.
Missing of course is a theory of why we have a military in the first place. And we have to ask the questions: whose interests are primarily served by the military, and who ‘throughout history’ benefitted from the deaths of servicemen ?
Portillo said they died for ‘Freedom, democracy and sovereignty’.
Portillo refers to ‘Britain’ throughout history, but is of course not clear what this means or when he thinks ‘history’ began: 871, 1066, 1296-1328, 1415, 1775, 1815? This is important because ‘throughout history’ these islands have experienced civil and religious wars, brutal clan, monarchical and colonial conflicts and imperial aggression and aggrandisement, which were nothing to do with democracy, sovereignty or freedom and everything to do with tribalism, establishing which family had the right to rule as monarch, about land acquisition, about nation building, about capital accumulation by dispossession, and about conquest. ‘Throughout history’ might was right. If you could kill the other King on the battle ground, you won. Before the 16th century, Anglo Saxon peasants, Scottish and Tudor serfs, and after it the the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian working class were merely pawns on the board, playing by the rules the Grandmasters designed.
I suspect that the ‘history’ Portillo speaks of (and the images in the video are clear) is this post 16th century history of the development of early industrial capitalism (1760—1830) through Liberal and Early Fordist (1830-WW1) to Late Fordist/Welfare capitalism (WW1 To 1970). From 1970, the era of Financial capitalism, we have new forms of post Imperial militarism in part trying to deal with the consequences of earlier epochs.
It could be argued that the military during the ‘long 16th Century’, began the transition from tribal/clan mercenary forces into a form that industrial capitalism later exploited to inhuman ends. Wallerstein dates this period from 1450-1640. During this period Europe used its advantages and gained control over most of the world economy. It spread industrialisation (‘guns, germs and steel’) across the globe imposing a capitalist economy and creating underdevelopment in the countries they colonised and conquered. We are still feeling the ripples today in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Wherever the European capitalist Imperialists went, their military went also.
During this period there were three key developments that impacted upon ordinary serfs, peasants and artisans and eased their transition into regular and conscripted soldiers for capitalism:
1) Increasing private ownership of the means of production, of the means for the pacification of the conditions of existence, of material conditions.
2) This process excluded people from wealth creation and ownership and in time created the working class foot soldier who had only his labour and life to sell for the King’s shilling.
3) The profit motive and capital accumulation as the driving aim of production. As Marx noted this latter dynamism produced wonders the world had never seen, but it also opened Pandora’s box.
In all three processes, the army and especially the Royal Navy, were key instruments of prestige, power and control.
Yet, Portillo said the soldiers and sailors died for democracy! Let’s not forget universal suffrage in the UK did not arrive until 1928. In 1821, only 4,500 men could vote. Many died or were assaulted and imprisoned for the suffrage as the history of the Chartists and the 19th century Reform Acts attest. Most who served and died at Trafalgar and Waterloo were disenfranchised, and were actually dragooned into defeating a country that was espousing more freedom from autocratic rule. Universal male suffrage in the UK was achieved only in 1918, so many in the trenches were also disenfranchised and yet were called to sacrifice their lives in an Imperial war.
Great Britain came into being in 1707, so is this the political entity Portillo refers to? An entity happily ruled by a German family, whose heirs were later happy to send the disenfranchised working class to die in colonial and Imperial wars all over the globe, and then to fight the working class of another country who were ruled by the same members of the German family!
Waterloo 1815 and Trafalgar 1805: fought partly because the Imperial powers of Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria were outraged at the French Revolution and feared that its revolutionary ideas of ‘Liberty, Brotherhood and Equality’ might spread, challenging their own crowned heads. So from the start, these wars were fought to crush revolutionary thoughts at home, by crushing Napoleon in foreign lands, and to take advantage of chaos in France. Napoleon, realising the external alliances of Russia, Austria and Britain, and their threat, tried to strike first. But Britain had already lost one colony, it did not want to lose at home. From the American colonists point of view, sovereignty and liberty meant very different things to that espoused by King George. Democracy, in both battles, for the working class did not exist. The men in Wellington’s squares died for the right of autocratic monarchs to crush the painful bloody evolution of citizen democracy. The same military was then used in Manchester in 1819 – the Peterloo massacre – to put down a crowd demanding more representation. Slow to quarrel? Britain and its allies quickly made sure the French knew who would suffer for daring to get rid of Autocratic Monarchy. Right from the early stages of capitalist development, Britain was not slow to take the quarrel to anyone resisting its trade routes, its monarchical rule, its self declared and right to impose colonialisation and ‘civilisation’. Its prowess indeed ensured ‘Britannia Ruled the Waves’ while enslaving others.
The Anglo-Zulu War: Instigated by High Commissioner for South Africa, Sir Henry Frere in an attempt to impose a federation in Africa after the Canadian example, obstacles being the independent countries of South Africa and Zululand. What were the British and other European countries doing in Africa in any case? Imposing their ideas of politics and religions onto other people’s without their consent. The ‘Scramble for Africa’ was hardly about defending British freedom, sovereignty and democracy. Again, I ask: the working class of Rourke’s Drift died to protect what exactly? One is now also free to reflect upon the Aboriginal and Aotearoan peoples’ views of Cook’s travels and the British claim to their territory.
The British, and other Europeans, dominated the world in wealth and power, decimating, subjugating and at times exterminating indigenous people as they came. The British armed forces were merely tools in the process of colonial expansion in the development of a world-system over the past 500 years. You need to lie to soldiers to get them to die of diseases in hot countries while trying to ‘stick one up’ the ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’.
The Old Lie
Throughout history the call was to die for ‘God, King and Country’; in the modern epoch, working men were sent to die to ensure British capitalist interests in foreign lands were secured, even though they could not vote themselves and were dispossessed of their ability to feed themselves through various means such as the enclosures.
What we of course need to remember is the causes of war so that we might, just might, see the current lies as being the same old lies told to ordinary men and women for centuries.
The Old Lie is this:
‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori’
‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country’.
The chapel at the Royal Military College Sandhurst has it inscribed in Latin on its wall.
The Roman poet Horace wrote:
‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths’.
‘Of battle-shy youths’! White feathers were given to teenagers during the 1914-1918 mass murder. At least one boy of 16 was shot for ‘desertion’. The army knowingly accepted teenagers as young as 15 to send to do their ‘patriotic duty’ but they were willing volunteers often as part of PALS regiments. We may wish to think about what sort of culture encouraged, if not coerced, very young boys and men to go and fight and die. How was war fervour kept up, why did youngsters feel they had no choice?
My Grandfather, Thomas Goodman, served with the Northumberland Fusiliers. He was 15 in 1914. He came home with two campaign medals, which are now in my possession. He never talked about the horrors he witnessed or his role as a stretcher bearer in the carnage. I would guess that he suffered, as countless others did, from post traumatic stress. I don’t think he thought it was ‘sweet and honourable to die’.
Jessie Pope, in poems such as “Who’s for the Game”, encouraged other young men like my grandfather, to join up for the Western Front. It was in response to such Pope’s misplaced patriotism that Wilfrid Owen wrote his own poem. Pope’s invocation of a ‘Game’ demonstrated the absolute poverty of thinking, the banality of asking men to die, as if it were a rugby match, on behalf ‘the country’ at the time.
Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?
Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?
Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much-
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?
Come along, lads –
But you’ll come on all right –
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you*.
(*.. and to die for your country is thus sweet and honourable.)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Imperial Britain has left a legacy of such messages and imagery, extolling ‘victories’ in place names all over the country to this day. Who does not know the relevance of a ‘Wellington Road’, ‘Trafalgar Square’ or Waterloo Station? Militarism runs through Britain’s veins as its very life blood. We abhor war, yet we fall for the Old Lie time and again.
Why do we join up?
Why do we still go to die in foreign lands? Why do we send out young people to ‘die for our country’, why are they really going?
What possesses an ill educated young man, living in a deprived post industrial town, who might have precarity of employment and perhaps is prone to risky, rash behaviour, to consider a career in the army?
I suggest many go to support each other, rather than for abstract notions of King and Country, to earn a decent living and raise a family, or for respect, or because they feel they have little choice, or because war and military service is glorified and an attractive option for otherwise dull lives, or because precarious unemployment in a cold northern town is shit, or to escape their working class fate or to fulfil their bourgeois class destiny, or because they are patriots who’ve been sold the lie, or because they have a history of familial military service, or they go for patriotism and tradition. Steeped in the moral intuitions of loyalty, sanctity and authority, with regimental histories tied in with locality, many sign up.
Some, perhaps only a few however, are filled with nationalist fervour and believe in God, King and Country.
Some believe in the superiority of their white ‘race’, culture and identity.
Some believe in the need to cleanse and purify their communities – those who hate or fear ‘poofs’, feminists and ‘Paki bastards’.
Some wish to rescue the country from Islam.
Some may be fascists.
Some have sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies.
Some are ‘stupid’.
Once they have joined, a strong value system of loyalty to each other, histories of glorious battles won, opportunities to work and play hard, to develop an esprit de corps is actively developed by the units they are part of. Critical analysis of nuanced history is anathema, as there can be no doubt about the correctness and moral virtue of one’s actions. Men do not want to have the lone inner voice saying “why are we here?” when the bombs and bullets start flying. To stick a bayonet into another man’s chest requires certainty, and well known processes of ‘dehumanisation’ are used to enable this to happen.
But many did not and do not knowingly go to defend capital accumulation and Empire building. No one wants to die for the East India Company, British Petroleum, Barclay’s Bank, Rolls Royce or Tate and Lyle. This is the real reason for many wars…struggles between Imperial powers for prestige and power in order to accumulate wealth and capital. Nationalist mythologies exist independently of this drive, and thus can also be strong motivators. Capital Accumulation does not need Nationalism to fight a war, but it really helps. Nationalism on its own cannot fight a war…it needs Capital. Some modern states have developed a military-industrial complex that has to have an ideological justification for the receipt of billions of tax dollars and pounds for its existence. The capitalist class executive and their friends in the political power elite developed both a repressive state apparatus and an ideological state apparatus to facilitate the use of armies, airforces and navies in the service of capital accumulation in foreign lands. The Old Lie is part of the ideological apparatus they use.
A Theory of the Military.
In order to combat, excuse the pun, the ‘Old Lie’ we need a theory of militarism, and for that we of course have to examine the role of soldiers throughout history. It is of course a long history, as old as human societies.
Militarism is the belief in the need for a strong military capability, the willingness to use it for both defence and offence in the national interest and values. It often involves glorification of the military, and the ideals of the professional military class, and military influence, if not participation, in the state bureaucracy. C Wright Mills identified the US military as forming part of the ‘Power Elite’. In the UK, military men have historically enjoyed high status as well as playing a direct role in Government – Wellington and Churchill being two high profile examples.
In the era of pre agricultural hunter gatherers, violent conflict over resources was evident. Abstract notions of sovereignty, democracy and freedom, are not recorded. However, ‘Flags, Kings and Countries’ did not exist to die for. A ‘military’ as we would understand it, did not exist.
Men, and for very real reasons I shall stick to using ‘men’, are born into material and social circumstances not of their own choosing. Each man has to struggle to pacify the conditions for his existence. He does so in alliance with other men. He does so in a society that pre dates him and provides him with structures of enablements and constraints. As he struggles, he also creates either new structures or upholds the current. It is in this struggle, that is characterised by inequality, power and wealth, that various forms of social organisation form. The structure of military values and organisations pre date many young men today, and they grow up exposed to certain value systems that either challenge militarism or uphold it. English public schools are renowned military preparatory institutions.
In previous epochs, Priests and Kings needed less powerful men to fight for them, to establish territory, to hold territory or to gain territory from other Priests and Kings in order to secure their own ‘conditions for existence’. Kings owned land and later machinery, tools and power generating systems that they need to feed themselves and to rule. This is a solid foundation upon which all other social forms evolved. Priests provided the ideological justification for this system of wealth, power and privilege. Each society is very often riven with internal tribal conflict, between powerful wealthy men and their slaves, peasants, workers. The latter have always been recruited to fight and die for the version of god, king and country that the powerful in their tribe attempt to establish. Priests and Kings have always told the Old Lie in order to get men to die for them. It helps if there is a promise of other worldly reward, or for concepts such as honour. Portillo merely reiterates the old call to die for three other abstract concepts.
Each epoch – slave, feudal, mercantile, industrial and now financial capitalism – merely invents new surface forms of the lie to cover, what is in effect, violent struggle over resources and the right to rule. Religious Ideology is another reason placed upon pure naked aggrandisement. As nation states evolved, they required a military to undertake aggression or to protect from other’s aggression. Pre-modern militaries were somewhat weaker than the modern military, due to a lack of state-funded resources. Powerful sectors of society that controlled certain privately funded resources, could raise their own mercenary forces if needed. Kings required tax to fight external threats that they defined and so extended control over society by exploiting ‘existential fears’ (e.g. ’Popery’). Kings created methods including mass conscription and tax. Henry VIII was first king to organize the Navy as a permanent force, with a permanent administrative and logistical structure, funded by tax revenue and supervised by the new Navy Board. Henry, the ‘Father of the English Navy’, cared not for democracy, nor for the freedom of his peasants and defined sovereignty to suit himself.
In every epoch, every society ever since we began to settle and farm, is thus characterised by the struggle for power, resources and prestige. Each agricultural society, and on up to mercantile capitalism and beyond, produces its class of priests, kings and generals. As Aristotle noted, there are ‘lovers of money’, ‘lovers of honour’ and ‘lovers of wisdom’. The ‘lovers of money’ have been recently called the bourgeois class. This class has always literally either fought for prestige and power or supported that fight, along with the ‘lovers of honour’, with ideological justifications based on supernatural notions of ‘Divine Right’ or ‘God’s Will’. ‘Divine Right’ mixed monarchy and theology together, enabling dissent to not only be countered as mutiny against an earthly order, an order merely backed by custom and practice, muscle and sword, but also as against God, and thus as heresy which forfeits the heretics right to life by definition. Today we still have Kings and Priests willing to peddle the old lie. They have been joined, of course, by Presidents and their backers in the bourgeois class. Some of the ‘lovers’ of wisdom’ have also succumbed to murderous ideology based on spurious notions of nation, of ‘blood and soil’.
Modern industrialising Capitalist States require new markets, and since workers in one state will increasingly be unable to provide demand for products, those states looked to non capitalist markets for both resources and demand, in large part driving Imperial acquisitions. The military was their tool for doing so. Alongside resource wars and the capitalist need for expansion, are ideological and religious notions and national mythologies. The need to civilise others, and beliefs about racial superiority, can also give rise to external violence. Armies are again tools to assist in establishing national dominance and ideology.
In the modern and late capitalist epochs, the ‘most revolutionary class’ swept away old feudal social relationships to replace them with very often violent imperatives of capital accumulation. The imperative to accumulate capital took the forms of mercantile, then industrial and now financial capitalism. In each form, war was just another means of furthering the nationalistic and accumulative interests of the bourgeois classes. Britain, Spain, France, The Netherlands and Portugal and later Russia, Germany, Japan and the United States fought imperialist wars over access to gold, silver, spices and the right to colonise and control overseas territories. The bourgeois class in each country created alliances and broke alliances with other bourgeois and in order to further their interests enrolled the help (conscripted) the working class to do their bloody bidding. In each case they invoke ‘King and Country’ and the old lie. For the 1914-1918 murder:
Private Baldrick asked Captain Blackadder how the war started:
Lt. George: The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire-building.
Edmund: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.
George: Oh, no, sir, absolutely not. [aside, to Baldick] Mad as a bicycle!
Baldrick: I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was hungry.
Edmund: I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.
Baldrick: Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir.
Edmund: Well, possibly. But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war.
George: By Golly, this is interesting; I always loved history…
Edmund: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?
Edmund: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
George: What was that, sir?
Edmund: It was bollocks.
Nationalism, patriotism and ideology
King Alfred of Wessex confronted the Viking Kings and the Kings of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia for a territory to be called ‘England’. William of Normandy fought with Harold Godwinson over the English crown which Harald Hardrada also contested. Henry V and the Plantagenets fought with the French Valois over the right to rule France. Queen Elizabeth 1st vied with King Philip of Spain for Global supremacy. George 3rd fought the American colonialists for the right to rule. Victoria’s armies scoured the globe colonising and fighting whomsoever challenged British Supremacy. Often, the overlay of a religious war veiled the facts. The right to rule nations was based in a religious justification contradicted by the other monarch’s claim to be God’s chosen. In Elizabethan times, if God was a Catholic, then Philip was the rightful Monarch of Spain and England should also have a Catholic Monarch. This was a position that of course protestant aristocratic and bourgeois England could not stomach. For them, God was a Protestant thus any Catholic claim to monarchy was heresy. It is of course the case that two Catholic Monarchs could come to blows over territory, but this merely rips apart the veil of religion to reveal pure naked aggrandisement as the basis for war.
Queen Victoria as Empress acted to defend the imperial interests of British private capital across the globe. She did so as titular head of the bourgeois class, while the sons of the poor Welsh miners died in Zulu wars to protect what exactly? Access to South Africa’s diamonds?
Hitler did not waft into power out of nowhere. He rode the tides of nationalism, discontent, unemployment and the fear of Communism. He had the backing of the bourgeois class, as The ‘Supermanagerial Reich’ (1) took shape before 1939.
“Before Hitler achieved his genocidal powers, there were years of what we would now call “intense partisan bickering,” decreasing prosperity, and violence in the streets. In the end, Hitler cobbled together a rickety coalition of business-minded technocrats, traditional conservatives, military interests, and his own radical ethno-nationalists into a plausible government… In Nazi Germany, economic history shows us a rapid change in the distribution of income and the emergence of a managerial elite who obtained an outsized share of national income, not just the now-proverbial one percent, but the top 0.1 percent. These were Nazi Germany’s equivalent to today’s so-called “supermanagers.”
Jair Bolsonaro now governs Brazil with the overt backing of many of Brazil’s business elites (2). Of course, US politicians in both parties have powerful and wealthy business backers (3).
We must separate superficial explanations for war such as nationalism or religion, to reveal the difference between appearance and reality. Nationalism always exists, but it takes capital to put it to dangerous use. ‘Dark money’ currently funding nationalist ideas in right wing think tanks are producing fruit. You can hear it in the mouths of many ordinary people who chant racist, nationalistic slogans straight out of ideologically based campaigns.
Rip apart ideological veils and you will very often see capital accumulation driving national motivations. The fact that nationalists believe their own cant, overlooking capitalist economic imperatives, is a human tragedy, which in every era, must be faced down and defeated. Nationalism and the imperative for capital accumulation (4) are two very dangerous bedfellows.
Kings identified themselves with territory, territory thus became sacred as a ‘blessed plot’:
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,–
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.
(William Shakespeare. King Richard II Act 2 scene 1)
Majestic poetry such as this, stirs the soul, and emboldens the nerves. I wonder if some Spitfire pilots recited it to themselves as a bulwark against the fear of death? It is not an accident that this speech by John of Gaunt stops there to be used as a rallying cry for English patriots. The context of that speech is usually unknown.
In ‘Notes on Nationalism’, George Orwell wrote:
“Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longeur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion. In the same way, there is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name.”
In 2018, we still have ‘the thing in considerable profusion’. Many people in Britain are afflicted with ‘longuer’ and we have some names for it: ‘post-colonial melancholia’ and ‘nationalism’. The first is a yearning for a return of our Imperial Glory, the second is a feeling that the interests of ‘our country’ comes first. The yearning is for a time when we ‘stood alone’ against continental tyrants. The Spitfire is not only a beautiful piece of machinery, it is also a very potent symbol of patriotic pride which for some also includes nationalistic pride. This is why Churchill is still a national hero, the white cliffs of Dover a potent image and the Monarchy goes almost unchallenged.
You hear ‘longuer’ voiced by the more fanatical wing of the Brexiteer camp today. They have a visceral hatred, and mistrust, of European capitalist elites. They yearn for taking back control without realising they will merely hand back a veneer of sovereignty to home grown capitalist elites, but because these ‘Greedy Bastards’ wear Union Jack waistcoats, that will be just fine.
“As the nearest existing equivalent (for longeur) I have chosen the word ‘nationalism’, but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation — that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty”.
Orwell writes here of ‘emotion’ and this is key. To understand why people will undertake acts of heroism, or folly, don’t underestimate the role of emotion. Those who have strong moral foundations (5) based in ‘Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity’ will have very strong feelings guiding action towards loyalty to nation, the authority of monarchy, or Presidents, and of the righteousn sanctity of their cause; “One Nation, Under God” for “God Blessing America” for “King and Country” and for crying “God for Harry, England and St George”. These feelings can all too easily be mustered in the service of Capital for foreign wars in order to secure commodities such as oil.
“By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad”. Here Orwell prefigures work on ‘dehumanisation’ by, for example, David Livingstone Smith (6).
“But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
I think you can hear in the pronouncements of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Modi, Bolsonaro, Portillo, and Duerte echoes of the need for the securing of power and prestige of their respective countries. ‘America First’ is an overt call to advance America’s interests and as described in detail in ‘Rise to Globalism (7)’ many Americans do believe that their way of life is the best and have forced it upon others as ‘leaders of the free world’. US military action since 1945 would stretch the definition of ‘defensive’ to its limit. In 2018 the UK’s defence secretary Gavin Williamson, opined that Britain should be a ‘true global player’, he said:
“This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play.”
That the world expects us to play? What world, what role? Cue “who do you think you are kidding….?”
I think both notions, nationalism and patriotism, were invoked in the 1914-18 murder. Defensive patriotism was wrongly invoked for action against the Kaiser as this primarily an Imperial war between members of the same monarchic families. The roots of the war are varied and contested, but to ignore empire building, the jostling for prestige and power around the globe and the absolute requirement for continuous and unending capital accumulation by powerful and wealthy capitalists in many European countries, would be to misunderstand why young men were encouraged and coerced to die ‘for their country’.
The roots of the 1939-45 murder include the revenge by capitalist elites enacted upon their bourgeois competitors in Germany at Versailles, fuelled no doubt by nationalism and half an eye on an opportunity to exclude German bourgeois competitors from encroaching on established empires. Hitler, aided by the bourgeois ‘supermanagers’ of the Reich, was thus able to exploit this crisis and competition between the nationalistic and greedy bourgeois classes.
What underpins competition, threat and counter threat today between the United States, China and Russia?
Who are the most vocal in promoting the old lie in our media on political platforms?
To die to protect one’s own family and community from the threat of slavery and death is understandable and necessary. A call to arms is not always wrong. Getting rid of Hitler by force was necessary as his threat was not just ideological. It was demonstrated. I don’t think the same was true of the Kaiser in 1914.
Today, I hear children being taught that “They died for us, for our freedom” in the 1914-18 murder. What evidence do we have that Germany was planning to invade Britain in 1914? If Germany had prevailed in 1918 are we to believe that the Kaiser would have put in place a German Prime Minister? I think the evidence is overwhelmingly that this was a war of rights to territory, an Imperial war, using ‘the nation’ as a smokescreen. Children today should be taught differently, to give them the tools to use when they are asked to go and die in a foreign field.
We must not be fooled again by the motives of the powerful who invoke the flag and then avoid retribution being visited upon their heads, for the deaths of millions, by their deflecting understanding of the actual causes. The ‘Heroes’ trope is used cynically perhaps by some who know they sent men to die in the Middle East for…oil, or to secure nationalist interest, power and prestige in that region? The ‘war on terror’ is a post colonial war.
Yes, they are ‘heroes’ but not for the reasons the politicians, capitalist apologists and the capitalist press often imply – they did not die for ‘us’, i.e. the country. They died unwittingly to secure the reputation and interests of the capitalist class and the political power elites. They consciously fought for each other and for the memory of their family at home, both truly noble causes.
The other side must also be dehumanised to legitimate slaughter on mass scale. Threat must be ramped up and the threat, if seen as coming from social poison, vermin or a toxic culture, can help galvanise patriotic defensive duty. It is perhaps a necessary fiction to get ordinary men and boys to put themselves in mortal danger and to kill: to protect old maids cycling to church in the morning mist, for cricket, for an English country garden, warm beer and the FA Cup.
Rarely is that the real reason.
We shall remember them, but I shall not forget the bastards who send them.
Portillo may have wanted to rally the Tory faithful and gave this speech before the Brexit referendum. The context then was that overt racism and bigotry in the public sphere was generally abhorred. Racism and hate still existed of course as many minority British groups can attest. Old style Imperial Tories who dream of England’s glory and white rule across the globe could cheer, while the rest of the country could just nod sagely. The idea of Empire had been challenged, but not as thoroughly in mainstream culture as many today think it has or as Portillo claimed. In 2014, by three to one, British people think the Empire is something to be proud of, they also think the colonies were better off under British Rule and a third would like it to still exist. So, not that different from my own context in the 1970s. In 2016, nearly half were proud of British colonialism, only 21% regretted it. When asked about the Empire, 43% said is was good, while only 19% said it was bad. Portillo was wrong then and he is wrong today…children are not brainwashed by sociological film flam. The culture is still imperialist in tone for many many people. If anything the figures are increasing for those who support Empire. ‘Post-colonial melancholia’ is spreading.
The sharing of this old speech of Portillo’s may indicate a nastier turn. As right wing authoritarian populists and nationalists grow in number across Europe and of course in the United States, Russia and elsewhere, we may be seeing the culture wars spreading across the globe. This is perhaps, very simplified between petty bourgeois nationalists (‘somewheres’) and the liberal progressives (‘anywheres’). The ‘Anti PC brigade’ would like to take us back to a time when we could call men ‘niggers’ and ‘pooftahs’. Too many fear strong women and are anti feminist; some feel they are denied their rightful access to sex and power by ’strident harpies’. They cry ‘poor me’ and shout about the achievements of white civilisation, that this is ‘our country’, to people to ‘go home’. They talk of betrayal, of traitors and of enemies of the people.
The unintended consequence of sharing this meme, and its glorification of imperial and military conquest, and its thinly veiled support for militarism, feeds into xenophobia and hate. This can be heard on radio talk shows and seen on the front pages of the press. Social media platforms are spreading this nasty message, and behind the scenes very wealthy and powerful men are funding right wing ideological groups masquerading as ‘think tanks’. Mainstream politicians are now talking about threats to democracy and if Brexit does not happen the way they want, they threaten violence on the streets, some even saying they would pick up a rifle.
The younger generation, the 18-35 years olds, must engage or lose their freedom to older racists and xenophobes.
Another European war is not impossible based on the Old Lie.
1. Chaudhary A and Chappe R. (2016) The Supermanagerial Reich. Los Angeles Review of Books. November 7th. https://lareviewofbooks.org/arti…/the-supermanagerial-reich/
2. Doering, H. Morgan, G. and Gomes, M. (2018) Jair Bolsonaro: How business elites helped him to power in Brazil – and why they might regret it. The Conservation. October 29th https://theconversation.com/jair-bolsonaro-how-business-eli…
3. Cain, A. (2018) The 30 Fortune 500 companies that have thrown the most money at Republicans and democrats in the last decade. The Business Insider. UK. March 4th http://uk.businessinsider.com/fortune-500-companies-republi…
4. Harvey, D. (2011) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. Profile Books. London.
5. Haidt, J. (2013) The Righteous Mind. Penguin. New York.
6. Livingstone Smith, D. (2018) Less than human. Why demean, enslave and exterminate others. St Martins Press. New York.
7. Ambrose, S and Brinkley, D (2012) Rise to Globalism. Penguin. New York.
Diamond. J. (1997) Guns Germs and Steel. Chatto and Windus. London.
Scambler. G. (2018) Sociology, Health and the Fractured Society. Routledge. London.
Wallerstein, I. (2013) Does capitalism have a future? Oxford University Press. Oxford.